Pitchfork Fest in Review: R. Kelly, Yo La Tengo, M.I.A. and More

Photo Credit: Leif Johnson

R. Kelly

First, a confession: I skipped out on the first several hours of Sunday’s P4K schedule to catch the Braves/White Sox game down at Comiskey Park U.S. Cellular Field. So, that meant no Killer Mike, no El-P and, most importantly, no Killer Mike + El-P. Bummed though I was to miss the Run the Jewels fun, at least I managed to catch some quality Braves baseball. Wait, did I say quality? I meant nine hits and only one run. I did see some drunk bros ironically Tomahawk Chopping, so that was something.

Back at Union Park, Yo La Tengo were finishing up their Green Stage slot with a muscly version of “Ohm,” from this year’s Fade. After a rousing version of “Little Honda,” the band closed out the set with a sprawling, noisy take on “Blue Line Swinger,” Ira Kaplan lovingly abusing his instrument. Immediately after, the #BasedGod hit the Red Stage. He tore through the Lil B classics—does Lil B have classics?—like “Ellen Degeneres,” while people went nutso. His off-kilter messages of generic positivity (it’s great to be alive! America! Abstinence!) flew heedlessly from his mouth like so many hashtags.

Toro Y Moi is, like, a real band now. Who knew? Chaz Bundick and co.’s set Sunday was a funky flurry of synth and rhythm, and even from far across the way it sounded meaty. Back on the Red Stage, M.I.A. and her backup crew (and her crazy light show) put on the day’s most energetic set. Unsubtly, Maya humped a beach ball (photos coming soon), and played all the politi-party jams: “Galang,” “Pull Up the People,” “Paper Planes.” By this point, the massive crowd was at a fever pitch, as crowdsurfer after crowdsurfer was pulled over the barricade by security.

Finally, it was time. Well, almost time. A robotic voice counted down the minutes until R. Kelly hit the stage—”R minus nine minutes”—and an electricity filled the air. (Sidenote to all festivals: I get the need to cluster similar artists, but do you have to put all the people of color on one day?) Aside from being Pitchfork’s most controversial headliner to date, Kelly was also its strangest. The bizarre “Trapped in the Closet” series landed the singer a new slew of irony-loving young fans, but most of his catalog falls squarely in R&B’s MOR—hardly Pitchfork’s wheelhouse. Or is it? In this age of constant cultural appropriation, it’s hard to tell sometimes.

The charismatic Kellz hit the stage hard with “Ignition (Remix)”, which was, of course, exactly what the people wanted to hear. His set was a stop-and-start journey through the megahits, from the aforementioned tune to “I’m a Flirt” to the delightfully weird “Sex in the Kitchen.” Hipsters bumped and grinded. (Ground?) Hundreds of white balloons shaped like doves filled the sky (!) as Kelly over-emoted “I Believe I Can Fly,” which, let’s not forget, made its debut in a movie about cartoon characters playing basketball with Michael Jordan.

For the crowd, most of which was of prime Space Jam-enjoying age when the song, with its soaring emotional crescendoes and generic radio-‘n’-B message first hit the airwaves, it was an unapologetically nostalgic moment. After it was done, Kelly and his robed choir of backup singers left the stage with 10 minutes remaining until the sound curfew. The crowd cheered, rather tiredly, for an encore, but save for one recorded chapter of “Trapped” oozing tepidly from the PA, it wasn’t to be.


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